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Diabetic neuropathy: Often silent, often dangerous



– Neuropathy can blur the seriousness of injuries, especially in patients with diabetes, and that can lead to severe consequences such as falls, foot ulcers, gangrene, and amputations, said Lucia M. Novak, MSN, ANP-BC, BC-ADM, CDTC, in a presentation on assessing and treating neuropathies at the Metabolic & Endocrine Disease Summit, sponsored by Global Academy for Medical Education.

As many as half of the cases of diabetic neuropathy may have no symptoms, and more than two-thirds of cases of diabetic neuropathy, even some with obvious symptoms, are ignored or missed by clinicians, said Ms. Novak, director of the Riverside Diabetes Center and adjunct assistant professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, both in Bethesda, Md.

At the same time, she said, diabetic neuropathy is very common. It affects an estimated 10%-15% of newly diagnosed patients with type 2 diabetes, 50% of patients with type 2 disease after 10 years, and as many as 30% of patients with prediabetes.

The condition is less common in type 1 diabetes, affecting an estimated 20% of patients after 20 years, she said.

“All we can do in our patients with type 2 diabetes and diabetic neuropathy, is to slow down the progression, although improving glycemic control can prevent it in type 1,” she said, citing findings suggesting that glycemic control could significantly reduce the risk of diabetic neuropathy in type 1 – but not type 2.

A 2012 report analyzed research into the effect of glycemic control on neuropathy in diabetes and found a pair of studies that reported a 60%-70% reduction of risk in patients with type 1 diabetes who received regular insulin dosing. However, the evidence for type 2 diabetes was not as definitive, and analysis of findings from eight randomized, controlled trials in patients with type 2 diabetes supported a relatively small reduction in the development of neuropathy in patients with type 2 diabetes who were receiving enhanced glycemic control (Lancet Neurol. 2012;11[6]:521-34).

Ms. Novak focused mainly on peripheral neuropathy, which is believed to account for 50%-75% of all neuropathy in patients with diabetes. She emphasized the importance of screening because it is crucial for preventing foot ulcers, which affect more than a third of patients with diabetes over their lifetimes.

She recommended following the American Diabetes Association’s 2017 position statement on diabetic neuropathy (Diabetes Care. 2017;40[1]:136-54), beginning with performing a visual examination of the feet at every visit.

Comprehensive screening

In patients with type 1 diabetes, there should be an annual comprehensive screening beginning within 5 years of diagnosis. Patients with type 2 disease should be screened at diagnosis and then annually, as outlined in the ADA statement.

The comprehensive exam involves using tools, such as tuning forks and monofilaments, to test sensation. Different tools are required to test both small and large fibers in the foot, Ms. Novak said, and doing both kinds of testing greatly increases the likelihood of detecting neuropathy.

Check for pulse, bone deformities, dry skin

In addition, “you’ll be feeling for their pulses, looking for bony deformities, and looking at anything is going on between the toes [to make sure] the skin is intact,” she said.


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